West Texas Red

By Jimmy Ewing 

We landed in El Paso in plenty of time to make it to the ranch by 4 p.m. The trip down was uneventful and we hooked up with our hunting guide, somehow a native Botswanan going by “O’Shaughnessey,”—the name completing the incongruity—and we turned off the paved road onto a dirt track that took us deep into the wilds of West Texas cattle country. 

A full half-hour of driving led us to the “lodge” which turned out to be an early 1900s train station building moved and repurposed as a hunting cabin, with naked lightbulbs strung from high ceilings and run by solar, with long pull cords fed through tiny pulleys along the wall terminating in retired and de-hooked crankbaits for pull knobs, no heating or air, and stumps for camp chairs. 

The “chef” proved to be an unflappably cheerful pipeline inspector named Greg. Four rail-thin mattresses with poked-through springs and a small gas-powered stove, eight bird dogs, a refrigerator, a smoker, two rocking chairs and a covey of blue quail under the porch completed the ensemble. 

David looked at me from under his ballcap and said, “Well, here we are.” Tone and context sometimes passes more along than the actual words, I find. 

Fire, three cocktails and the usual pleasantries due among four type-A strangers all sharing close accommodation and proximity to uncased firearms complete, we each found our best body contour to wrap between un-sprung mattress springs and settled in for the night.  

A scaled, or blue, quail is an interesting critter; something of a bastard cousin to the bobwhite, I don’t feel they get the interest or respect they deserve. Hell, any ground nesting prey animal set to make a living in that inhospitable land of creosote and dust has my appreciation, if not downright admiration, but their gentlemanly southern relative and the gaudy Chinese import cousin to the north both seem to garner more praise and esteem. I can see no real reason for this other than, perhaps, the inhospitable terrain ole’ blue calls home.  

We pulled out in the morning shortly after daylight seated high atop a customized ‘90s Jeep Wrangler with our Botswanan of Irish descent, Ryan O’Shaughnessey, PhD (we come to find out), at the helm and spent the next two days pushing bore holes on 88,000 acres for scaled quail, finding about one decent covey per stop and, in general, covering ourselves in glory. The scaled quail, it turns out, is right primed to run, turning nearly any point into a quarter-mile-long affair full of strategy, pageantry and often, defeat.  

My partner on this adventure was a man of unusual talent with a scattergun, leading us to a very respectable daily bag and an overall successful trip, making friends in Ryan and Greg, and developing a new appreciation for West Texas’ inhospitable terrain. But just after the last coveyrise of our second day, we picked up the birds that had fallen to our initial volley, then made a quick turn back toward the Jeep and a convenient access point in the fence line.  

As I leaned across the gate to decipher yet another classic West Texas improvised gate locking mechanism, the lead dog, a big bull-headed pointer named Red, burst through the dense broom grass and mesquite ahead of me and cut across the trail, head high and wind in his nose. His path took him square across the back of a 5½ foot-long western diamondback sunning in the path. The big snake coiled and struck in the blink of an eye, hitting Red center mass with a hollow, crushing thud like a bare fist to the chest.  

The dog and snake tangled, cartwheeled, then came apart, Red returning to his master, stricken, as the snake began his hollow, rattling, death cry. I settled up with the snake, then turned to the Jeep to make what we could of the situation, not hoping for much, the dog in Ryan’s arms already beginning to swell and to shake. 

The trip back to the ranch was an eternity, the handoff quick, and Ryan set off for town and the vet—making time as best he could. A full 45-minutes from a paved road and another hour from proper civilization, I doubt I would have made it if it had been me—and, unfortunately, Red didn’t. That dog gave his life and left me with mine, taking a lethal dose of venom meant for me from a snake as big around as my bicep with a wicked set of inch-long fangs.  

The natural world is unforgiving. Modern man lives more or less alongside it; entering it only when we choose, taking our place in the food chain but briefly, before retreating to the comfort and convenience of air conditioning and food on speed-dial. But not that big diamondback, and not a bull-headed bird dog named Red.  

RIP West Texas Red. 

Lead image by Russell Graves

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